Surviving illiteracy in Europe

As my dad & I are sitting in a special branch of a bank, created to help foreigners open and manage their bank accounts, the clerk shoots a glance at me when I grab the papers she’s handing to him. “I’ll do it dad.” I say and I offer no further explanation to her, for I sense that she has understood that my dad can’t read or write.

Even though he hasn’t lived in Belgium for a long time, we are on a quest to making sure he can now, at age 65, get his pension for the 18 years he worked here. Not a full pension, but every penny counts in Africa, especially as he’s getting older.

As an illiterate person, you have to put to so much trust in others, it’s insane! Luckily I’m here to help him set up his bank account and to make sure that whatever little amount he’s supposed to get will actually make it to him in Senegal, because there’s no way that he can get on a computer and set-up money-transfers.

When he travels he has to ask random people to point him in the right direction of terminals, buses & trains. Try renting a place or doing your daily paperwork…He is so charming & such a great people person that he always gets the help he needs (never mind a few detours sometimes), but I personally can’t imagine living in an unreadable world even though my eyes can see.

He was never able to move up from being a manual laborer, doing heavy duty work, like cleaning out tankers with chemicals and working in various factories, to a job a little easier on the body. Eventually, because of a misunderstanding in administration (which most likely would not have occurred had he been literate), he got thrown out of the country having to leave a 12-year old daughter (me) behind. Illiteracy has very big consequences for families, especially in these fast paced ” get on board or get left behind” days.

As the only provider for his near family in Senegal, he resorted to selling bags and accessories on the street. It’s getting tough for him, but he’s such a survivor. He found a nice Romanian family where he can store his bags so he doesn’t have to drag his goods back home every day. Through it all he never lost his sense of humor, his faith and his belief in the goodness of mankind. He’s always telling me how such & such are so nice to him, introducing him to new clients, giving him a little extra money when they can, buying him coffee or a meal.

You might ask why he never took the steps to learn how to read and write as an adult? I think he was always too busy trying to just scrape by, having been sent to Europe to take care of the family that stayed behind, in a still semi-industrial age. Courses weren’t as widely available as they are these days and jobs were easy to find. If you weren’t afraid to get your hands dirty, you got hired on the spot.

He’s always showing everyone, whether they care to look or not, the pictures of his 5 daughters and grand-kids, beaming with pride. And while he does, he never forgets to mention how smart they are. They can all read and write.


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